Monday, May 30, 2011

I got lost in a suburban woods

Never Done: I got lost in a suburban woods

When I come to Potomac to visit Josh's mom, I always try to take advantage of the fact that we're in the suburbs -- go to REI, swim in the huge and empty-laned Montgomery Aquatics Club, or, like I'm going to do on this trip, getting a no-hassle, no-wait appointment at the Apple Store genius bar. (My computer has been crashing -- randomly going blue and then rebooting without actually rebooting. It's scaring me.) Also on this trip, fresh off my difficult swim, I decided to take refuge in something I know I can do: run in the woods.

This is my favorite kind of running. I love that the dirt paths are softened by pine needles, and that they are tripped up with rocks and roots. I love the attention it takes to place ones feet while keeping up a steady pace. I love the smells in the woods, and the hundreds of greens and browns, and I love making mental notes of the the path, so I can safely loop back to the start.

Except when I can't.

I wanted to go for a 50-minute run, which is 7-minutes longer than I've done so far, but is what my group is up to, and I decided to go in the Cabin John Park Trail, along the Cabin John creek. I was still having an extremely tough time breathing (even when not exercising) but I brought my inhaler, and figured I could stop and walk whenever I needed to. I chose a path that started out flat along the creek, and set out at a slow steady pace for about 10 minutes before it started to climb. It was lovely. It wasn't wild forest, but it was a world away from the brick McMansions and strip malls. I ran quite well, although my lungs made me walk up most of the steep inclines. After 25 minutes, I had descended to the creek again, and I could hear a road, but I didn't know if it was the right road. I still had time to turn around and follow the blue-marked trail back, but I had a feeling there was going to be a different way to go -- a flatter, creek-side way that would keep me running instead of walking up the hills.

So I decided to explore a little. I have a great sense of direction, and I still had 30 minutes before I was supposed to call Josh and his family to make a plan for dinner. I arrived quickly to a park entrance, with a posted sign with trail info on it, but it lacked the one thing I most needed: YOU ARE HERE. I chose the path that followed the creek, and eventually crossed paths with a man and his dog. I asked him how far I was from my car, and told him how I had come, and he let me know that there was in fact a faster way back -- if I would follow the creek the other direction, I was just an easy mile and half from my entrance.

So I turned around, and kept running, hugging the creek like the man said, and thought about how we trust people we don't know, even when (especially when?) we're out of our element.

Anyhow, I followed his advice, and after about 10 minutes, the creek looked like it looked where I had come in, and I could hear the road ahead. I was feeling good. And then.

Just about where I thought I should head out to the road, I couldn't find a way out of the woods. The path kept going, up a sharp incline, and further south than I thought I should go. But it was the only path I could see, so I followed. And came out to a giant field under miles of power lines. The path I was on ended, and huge brambles prevented me from following the creek. It was the time I said I would call in to make a plan to go to a dinner (at a cafe in a strip mall) but (did I not mention this earlier?) I had left my cell phone in the car, so I could carry water instead. This was the moment when I realized I was lost in a suburban woods.

I decided to follow the power lines to see if there was another clue. I went the way I thought was wrong geographically, but right instinctively -- now really pushing my stamina, because it was coming to the 45 minute mark of running. Way up ahead, I saw some trucks parked under the power lines, and realized that might mean there was a road nearby, so I kept heading in that direction, when suddenly I heard 70s rock music blaring from what seemed like the middle of the woods. I followed a path that led in that direction, and before long I could see glimpses of cars in what I thought was a field, and I pictured a Memorial Day party, full of drunk guys my age pretending they were still in high school. I pictured myself emerging, sweaty, out of the woods and asking for directions, when I came up out of the woods and it was a sports recreation facility and a giant parking lot and a lot of nice suburban parents watching their nice suburban kids play baseball.

I told one of the nice suburban mothers that I was late and had gotten lost, and she told me where I was. It turned out my sense of direction had been flawless, even if my ability to use it had been useless -- I was 1/2 mile away from my car, along two major suburban roads. I wanted her to offer to give me a lift, but she looked at me and said, You look like you want to run. I said, Actually, I've been running for an hour, and she smiled and turned away and got into her SUV.

There was a time when I lived in England when I was traveling around with the Green Road Show, and they were all caravanning from one peace and music festival to the next, and leaving me alone to hitchhike. I've written about it before; my hitchhikes often ended badly, and somehow I was still not able to just come out and ask my friends for the help I needed, and somehow they were all willing to drive away waving -- see you at Glastonbury! Granted, this was a different situation (they were my community; she had never laid eyes on me) but how hard would it have been for this woman to give me a lift 2 minutes down the road, when she knew I was late and tired, instead of leaving me to sort it out on my own? Apparently too hard, and so she drove off, waving, and I set off out to the road.

It all worked out. I called in about 25 minutes late, and nobody minded. They told me which chain restaurant in which strip mall we were going to. I got over there 10 minutes before they arrived, and did my warm-down stretches in the parking lot. All the while thinking about what the barriers are to my really asking for help when I need it.

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